The Wright Way: A Lack of a National Style

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“Form follows function-that has been misunderstood. Form and function should be one, joined in a spiritual union” – Frank Lloyd Wright

Later this week, I will be taking a short trip to visit a Frank Lloyd Wright home in nearby Hampshire, Illinois. I used to drive by the sprawling Dana Thomas House in Springfield almost every night after work. But for me, this Usonian homestead will be a glimpse into the past of what could have been and a glimpse into the future of what could be.

In 1870, Frank Lloyd Wright’s mother told him he was a genius at the age of three. He never forgot that. He never let anyone else forget it either. His career as an architect and designer would see many phases and styles in between  personal catastrophes and affairs of the heart that threatened to bring down his life and career.  Through it all, Wright’s vision of what a building or  a home should be never wavered.

Wright started not with a style but with an idea, a Weltanschauung, a principle, which he called “organic architecture.” What he meant by it was that humans are part of nature, subject to the laws, rhythms and mysteries of nature and happiest if they live in harmony with it, and their dwellings should reflect this unity inside and out.1

Wright’s career started out as a draftsman for the great Louis Sullivan. Wright quickly moved up the ladder at Sullivan’s firm but was fired for moonlighting by designing homes for clients on his own. In what became known as the Prairie Style, Wright’s use of the horizontal proved to be earth shattering in the field of architecture. By 1910, his design made him America’s most ell known architect. For the next 25 years years, personal problems overshadowed Wright’s career. He barely hung on.

By the early 1930s, Wright’s home life stabilized enough that he and his new wife started having apprentices come out to Taliesin in Spring Green, Wisconsin. It was here that Wright would revitalize his career with Falling Water. It was also during this time period that Wright began designing what he called Usonian homes. The home itself is a mixture of two things – simplicity and a supposed affordability. While the houses were simplistic, they were not quite as affordable as planned.

Many times throughout his career, Wright had hoped to create a national style of home. First came textile block homes followed by others. They never caught on. Usonian homes did not either. Although, the influence of Wright can be seen in the single level ranch homes built in many subdivisions. But for Wright, his designs for the masses never captured the attention of the masses enough to create a national style. Why is that?
1. Wright was a great architect and designer. But he wanted too much control over aspect of the houses from the furniture to the ornaments to the design of the glass.
2. Cost – Initially, the Usonian home was to only be $5000, but Wright could never manage money very well. Cost over runs along with using sub standard materials meant the houses were having to totally rebuilt within five to ten years.
3. Aesthetics – While pleasing to the eye, the use of space nature in a Usonian home was fine for the family living in it, it’s horizontal design does not mesh well in urban planning. The Usonian home is better suited to wide spaces and should not be confined by the grid systems of most communities.
4. Individuality – Who wants a home like a everyone else? While the ranch home may come close to a national style in American Architectural history, the idea that everyone else has a home just like you is not pleasing. Despite subdivision conformity, even today, the use of landscaping can create that individuality.

In the end, Wright still influences designers today. His horizontal lines and unique meshing of nature and home are taken into account whenever a home is built by many architects. Despite his personal wishes, Wright’s Utopian vision of Usonian homes may have been way ahead of his time and it may never come to pass.

Notes
Von Eckardt, Wolf . “Reassessing the Wright Stuff”. Time Magazine. September 12, 1983.

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